anomalous stories incongruous places

Es­ti­mated reading time is 4 min­utes.

STEPHEN JAY GOULD. I can’t re­call what first at­tracted me to him, but it was a long time ago. The first book of his that I re­member reading was The Flamingo’s Smile – Re­flec­tions In Nat­ural His­tory from 1985. What a de­lightful title for a book of es­says on the smileful (have I just coined a new word?) turns that evo­lu­tion has caused Earth’s crea­ture to take! 

But I did not turn to Mr. Gould be­cause he was a pa­leontol­o­gist and evo­lu­tionary bi­ol­o­gist. I was pointed in his di­rec­tion be­cause I wanted to learn more about the modern Amer­ican essay as a form of lit­er­a­ture than what I re­called from high school and col­lege courses. I could not have turned to a better writer than Stephen Jay Gould.

SJG ad­dressed the is­sues of re­li­gion and sci­ence and what he called non-overlapping mages­teria (NOMA) at much greater length in his book Rocks of Ages – Sci­ence And Re­li­gion In The Full­ness Of Life (1999).

“In­con­gruous places often in­spire anom­alous sto­ries. In early 1984, I spent sev­eral nights at the Vat­ican housed in a hotel built for itin­erant priests. While pon­dering over such puz­zling is­sues as the in­tended func­tion of the bidets in each bath­room, and hun­gering for some­thing other than plum jam on my break­fast rolls (why did the basket only con­tain hun­dreds of iden­tical plum packets and not a one of, say, straw­berry?), I en­coun­tered yet an­other among the in­nu­mer­able is­sues of con­trasting cul­tures that can make life so interesting. 

Our crowd (present in Rome for a meeting on nu­clear winter spon­sored by the Pon­tif­ical Academy of Sci­ences) shared the hotel with a group of French and Italian Je­suit priests who were also pro­fes­sional scientists.

At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been trou­bling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about sci­en­tific cre­ationism? One asked me:

‘Is evo­lu­tion re­ally in some kind of trouble. and if so, what could such trouble be? I have al­ways been taught that no doc­trinal con­flict ex­ists be­tween evo­lu­tion and Catholic faith, and the ev­i­dence for evo­lu­tion seems both en­tirely sat­is­fac­tory and ut­terly over­whelming. Have I missed something?’

A lively pas­tiche of French, Italian, and Eng­lish con­ver­sa­tion then en­sued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed re­as­sured by my gen­eral an­swer: Evo­lu­tion has en­coun­tered no in­tel­lec­tual trouble; no new ar­gu­ments have been of­fered. Cre­ationism is a home­grown phe­nom­enon of Amer­ican so­cio­cul­tural history—a splinter move­ment (un­for­tu­nately rather more of a beam these days) of Protes­tant fun­da­men­tal­ists who be­lieve that every word of the Bible must be lit­er­ally true, what­ever such a claim might mean.

We all left sat­is­fied, but I cer­tainly felt be­mused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish ag­nostic, trying to re­as­sure a group of Catholic priests that evo­lu­tion re­mained both true and en­tirely con­sis­tent with re­li­gious belief.”

The above is from an essay ti­tled “Nonover­lap­ping Mages­teria” on The Un­of­fi­cial Stephen Jay Gould Archives web­site (which is no longer avail­able). This essay orig­i­nally ap­peared in the March 1987 issue of Nat­ural His­tory mag­a­zine and was reprinted a year later in the book Leonar­do’s Moun­tain Of Clams And The Diet Of Worms. An­other 4,400 words follow the above, which are the first three para­graphs of the essay. 


Stephen Jay Gould's book Leonardo's Mountain Of Clams

Fruitful cooperation?

The orig­inal essay in­cluded a post­script by Gould to his re­cently de­ceased friend and fellow sci­en­tist, Carl Sagan:

“Carl Sagan or­ga­nized and at­tended the Vat­ican meeting that in­tro­duces this essay; he also shared my con­cern for fruitful co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the dif­ferent but vital realms of sci­ence and re­li­gion. Carl was also one of my dearest friends. I learned of his un­timely death on the same day that I read the proofs for this essay. I could only re­call Nehru’s ob­ser­va­tions on Gand­hi’s death—that the light had gone out, and dark­ness reigned everywhere.

But I then con­tem­plated what Carl had done in his short sixty-two years and re­mem­bered John Dry­den’s ode for Henry Pur­cell, a great mu­si­cian who died even younger: He long ere this had tuned the jar­ring spheres, and left no hell below

The days I spent with Carl in Rome were the best of our friend­ship. We de­lighted in walking around the Eternal City, feasting on its his­tory and architecture—and its food! Carl took spe­cial de­light in the anonymity that he still en­joyed in a na­tion that had not yet aired Cosmos, the greatest media work in pop­ular sci­ence of all time.

I ded­i­cate this essay to his memory. Carl also shared my per­sonal sus­pi­cion about the nonex­is­tence of souls—but I cannot think of a better reason for hoping we are wrong than the prospect of spending eter­nity roaming the cosmos in friend­ship and con­ver­sa­tion with this won­derful soul.”

Stephen Jay Gould was also a diehard fan of Gilbert & Sul­livan (!) and base­ball fan. A posthu­mous col­lec­tion of his writing on America’s (once) Na­tional Pas­time was pub­lished in book form as Tri­umph And Tragedy In Mudville – A Life­long Pas­sion For Base­ball (2003). Rec­om­mended reading for fans of base­ball and of fine writing.

PS: The image at the top of this page is taken from Mr. Gould’s ap­pear­ance on The Simp­sons tele­vi­sion show (where one can often find anom­alous sto­ries in­con­gruous places) in the episode ti­tled “Lisa The Skeptic.”





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